Saturday, January 31, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 29 (Christian Bök)

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Bök, Christian

Although I have known and been a fan of Christian's for more than a decade, I just bought this and Eunoia recently (at Partly, this is because over the years I have seen him perform probably 80 percent of the content of the two books in person and so buying the book felt somewhat redundant. Happily, the experience of reading them is not at all redundant, as the books themselves are as alive visually and semantically as they are when Christian performs them.

I first met C. at a party in London. Ontario, that is. It was at Tom Orange's apartment. Tom was studying there, and even though I know he is from Cleveland, I still think of Tom as Canadian. Forgive me, Tom. The party took place only a month or two after I had arrived in Buffalo, so was probably in the fall of 1997. Several poetics students--myself, Bill Howe, Eleni Stecopoulos, Taylor Brady, and Scott Pound--read alongside chris cheek, who was in Buffalo to read in the Wednesdays at 4 Plus series. I think Joel Kuszai was there, too, but did not read for some reason.

Tom had invited us to read at a little art gallery in London and had a party for us beforehand--or was it afterward--or both? I can't remember. I think it was after the reading. A lot of the poets that were either in or or around Toronto at the time were there as well--Darren Wershler (-Henry), Peter Jaeger, and Christian. After the reading, which was my first since arriving in Buffalo, we all went back to Tom's for the party. I remember now, it was definitely after the reading.

There was a guy from the college radio station there and he interviewed us all for his program. He asked everyone about where and what they had published and I felt really embarrassed because I had yet to publish anything outside of the undergraduate literary magazine six years earlier. cris cheek, perhaps sensing my embarrassment, humbly told the interviewer that he didn't really publish very much, despite the fact he'd been writing and publishing for well nigh 30 years! (Thanks, cris!)

(cris' performance that night, which took place very soon after Princess Diana had died in a car accident, utilized a bullhorn to rather exciting and disturbing effect. The piece had something to do with Diana, but I can't recall quite what. I remember being thrilled by his performance -- I hadn't at that time had much exposure to sound poetry or sound performances. Readings in New York in the mid-90's tended to be frigid to the point of brittleness, regardless of the quality of the writing. One other memory of cris cheek that night. On the ride back to Buffalo we passed what seemed like 30 miles of strip malls on the way out of London. The whole time cris played at naming all of the fonts on all of the signs on all the stores in all the strip malls as we passed them. He seemed to recognize every single one).

Soon afterward there came to be a pretty strong back-and-forth between the poets in Toronto and the poets in Buffalo. I think I first saw Christian perform in Buffalo at a little art gallery and performance space (which is sorely missed) called cornershop. Anya Lewin had convinced her landlord to allow her use the storefront below her apartment for minimal cost, of which I think the Gray Chair picked up a portion. This became a hub of avant-garde activity for a couple of years, with fashion shows, video performances, poetry readings, exhibitions, etc., occurring on what seemed like a nightly (but was probably a weekly) basis.

In those days, Christian always wore a black leather motorcycle jacket. He has since traded in the leather for a sport coat and a tie. He has also traded in Toronto for Calgary, and crystallography for genomic research.

Reading through this book recently, I was really struck at how beautiful many of the poems are, a fact often easily overshadowed by the mythology that surrounds the muscular conceptual precision and prodigious performance skills of their creator.

Here's a short piece I like a lot:


stars are bubbles of air

rising through an infinite

depth: we rise with them

through this dark, slow

motion snowfall in reverse

sleep through our ascent

bound at wrist and ankle

by the chains from silver

watches, anchors without

weight: even as we dream

we hold our breath against

the moment when we crash

up through the surface

tension, as though through

a sheet of glass, into still

another depth with other

stars, fragments of our

last collision in our wake

eyes shut tight, and every

mouth a photo of a scream

Wikipedia entry on the word in the title.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 28.3 (Roberto Bolaño)

By Night In Chile
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Bolaño, Roberto
By Night In Chile

Well, I may have fooled myself. There's still a bookmark in this book and it is only about halfway through. I may not have read the whole thing. In fact, I think I stopped reading it. Looking at it again, I remember having started reading. I remember some of the story. I remember that the whole book is a single, 130-page paragraph. I will read it. Really, I will.

It begins:

I am dying now, but I still have many things to say. I used to be at peace with myself. Quiet and at peace. But it all blew up unexpectedly. That wizened youth is to blame. I was at peace. I am no longer at peace.

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 28.2 (Roberto Bolaño)

Bolaño, Roberto
Distant Star/Estrella distante

English version, Distant Star, purchased and read two years ago (Talking Leaves). Spanish version, Estrella distante, purchased online at and read in the last month. I felt like I had to re-read this in the original after having embarked upon the Year of Reading in Spanish. Both were read late at night, while lying in bed next to Lori. It's a king sized platform bed made with an espresso-colored wood and a headboard with an abstract design on it. We purchased it online at West Elm, and we do not recommend it. Nice looking, poorly made. Anyhow, we both have little Ikea reading lights on the wall above our heads and we both read for 20-60 minutes before falling off to sleep. I've been amazed over the past few years how much reading I actually get done by reading this way, and none of it feels in any way hurried.

Distant Star was the first book of Bolaño's that I read. I think I had read a notice of his death in the NY Times and then one day saw the book on the shelf thought I'd check it out. I read this and By Night In Chile back to back, but at the time that was all there was available in English and I wasn't exercising my Spanish reading muscle very often. I kind of forgot about him until the fall of 2007 when i gave a reading in Tucson with Tyrone Williams. After the reading, several of us were eating Indian food in town and got to talking about what were were reading. Barbara Hennings was reading and glowing about The Savage Detectives, so I filed that in the back of my head as something to check out. Anyhow, soon thereafter it felt like every poet I knew was reading it, which eventually lead to the current Bolaño binge that I have been on.

I am now trying to find a decently priced copy of Nazi Literature in the Americas in Spanish. I thought I found one online the other day, but the shipping from Spain cost more than the book. Alas!

Here's a very brief excerpt from of Distant Star:

I can't say I knew him well. I saw him once or twice a week at the workshop. He wasn't particularly talkative. I was. Most of us there talked a lot, not just about poetry, but politics, and travel (little did we know what our travels would be like), painting, architecture, photography, revolution, and the armed struggle that would usher in a new life and a new era, so we thought, but which, for most of us, was like a dream, or rather the key that would open the door into a world of dreams, the only dreams worth living for. And even though we were vaguely aware that dreams often turn into nightmares, we didn't let that bother us.

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 28.1 (Roberto Bolaño)

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Bolaño, Roberto

This is easily the most talked about book of the year. I bought it at Talking Leaves...Books in Buffalo. I just finished reading the Spanish language hardcover version a month or so ago. It arrived from Spain with a damaged cover, but I was primed and ready to go, having spent two months waiting for it to arrive after finishing and loving The Savage Detectives, so I took the damaged book without complaint.

In the meantime, Lori and I had purchased a house, moved in, and starting working away at it. The previous owners had lived there for 36 years and were heavy smokers. We spent three weeks wiping tar off the woodwork and the walls. In case this ever happens to you, I highly recommend a product called "LA's Totally Awesome!" It's a spray cleaner that can be purchased at Family Dollar for almost nothing. When you spray it on to tar-stained wood, it froths up into a black foam that oozes toward the floor. In a word, it's nasty, but effective. And there's something very satisfying about wiping that black froth off the wall. Please, don't get me started on home improvement.

While I waited for 2666 to arrive, I tried reading Don Quixote in Spanish. I got about half-way through it, but it really tested the limits of my Spanish reading ability, filled as it is with archaisms and so forth. I intend to go back to it, possibly soon. Possibly.

2666 arrived in October. I was happy to receive my copy about 3 weeks before it was released in English so I could get a head start on the rest of America. It's a powerful and disturbing book, much of whose narrative concerns the more than 450 murders (and beatings and rapes) of women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, over the last ten or twelve years. The accumulation of violence in the book is almost too much to bear, but the writing and storytelling are so exceptional that you are able, eventually, to rise to some sort of catharsis.

Did I mention that I love Roberto Bolaño? Well, I do.

Here's an excerpt at the NY Times website:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Why I Am Not A Librarian, Part 3

Christian Bok
Originally uploaded by Mongibeddu
"Christian Bök" comes before "Roberto Bolaño" in the alphabet. Sorry, Christian. I'll get to you soon! Also, I should note that the Bhagavad Gita should have preceded the section beginning with Ambrose Bierce.  Alas.

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 28 (Roberto Bolaño)

Bolaño, Roberto
Los detectives salvajes

Ok, I'll just come out and say it: I LOVE ROBERTO BOLAÑO!

If I had to narrow down my choice of books to own to those that would fill a single shelf, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives) would surely be one of the novels residing there.

I ordered this through Talking Leaves...Books last summer (The Summer of Reading In Spanish, which has since morphed into The Year Of Reading In Spanish). I ordered it in May, but it took about six weeks to arrive from Spain (2666 took 3 months!). It took me about a month to complete. Compared to a lot of writers, Bolaño's Spanish is pretty easy for me to read (I am reading Lezama Lima's Paradiso right now, which will either kill me or make me stronger, likely the former). I did have to look up a lot of the expletives, of which there is no shortage in this book. For instance, in one passage a character propounds his theory that all poets are queers. He then divides the term "queer" into about ten different sub-categories like "faggot," "fairy," "cocksucker," et al, before telling us which poets fall into each one. I ended up having to check out Natasha Wimmer's amazing English translation in order to grasp the English equivalents of many of the idioms being used.

I guess one reason I love this book because it's about young poets trying to remake the world in their own image. They call themselves the "visceral realists" and their movement is known as "visceral realism." Apparently this is based on a real movement founded by Bolaño and poet Mario Santiago Papaquiaro called "infrarealismo." There's a whole website (in Spanish) devoted to them here. It quickly becomes a book about the myth of the poet and the way that myth reproduces and reinforces itself in the minds of readers and writers. (There's an interesting article in the NY Times about the way Bolaño himself perpetrated and perpetuated mythic falsehoods about his having been briefly jailed in Chile during the Allende coup and also about his having been addicted to heroin early in life.)

His primary narrative device -- the firsthand account, witness testimony -- while seemingly bringing the reader close to the story, actually serves the opposite purpose. Just about every character in the book at some point or other has a chance to speak, except the two protagonists, Roberto Belano and Ulises Lima, both young poets in Mexico city in the mid-seventies. Their absence produces in the imaginations of their circle of friends all kinds of fantastical accounts about their activities. They take part in revolutions, perform all manner of real and/or literary derring-do (including a duel with a literary critic), deal drugs, befriend prostitutes and criminals, etc. But they never speak. All the while we are treated to a panoramic view of the 20th century avant-garde through the idealistic lenses of youth. 

Anyhow, Los detectives salvajes is at once profound, funny, dark, obscene, affecting, and erudite. Think "On The Road" meets "Don Quixote" by way of Borges, and you'll get the idea. My only disappointment, alas, is the quality of the binding of the Spanish edition. After one read, the spine is completely cracked and I can tell the pages will start to fall out in a couple of years. I guess I'd better read it again soon.

There's a brief excerpt from the opening section of the book here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 27 (Giovanni Boccaccio)

The Decameron
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Boccaccio, Giovanni
The Decameron

It's a miracle I ever read this book at all, given how much of someone else's highlighting is in it. I purchased it used at the Fordham University Bookstore on Fordham Rd. in the Bronx for an excruciatingly boring class on Renaissance literature. My professor was old and shaped like a pear and he read from notes that were laminated to protect the pages from aging. It did not, unfortunately, protect his ideas.

It opens:

Human it is to have compassion for the unhappy, and a great deal is required of those who are happy, especially if they required comfort in the past, and managed to find it in others. Now, if any man ever had need of compassion or found it dear to him, or received comfort from it, I am that man; for, from my earliest youth until the present time, I have been inflamed beyond all measure with a most exalted and nobel love, perhaps too exalted and noble for my lowly station. Although was praised and more highly esteemed by those who were discreet and who had some knowledge of this love, nevertheless it was extremely difficult to bear: certainly not because of the cruelty of the lady I loved but rather because of the overwhelming fire kindled in my mind by my poorly restrained desire which, since it would not allow me to rest content with any acceptable goal, often caused me to suffer more pain than was necessary. In my suffering, the pleasing conversation and consolation of a friend often gave me much relief, and I am firmly convinced I should now be dead if it had not been for that. But since He who is infinite has been pleased to decree by immutable law that all earthly things should have an end, my love, more fervent than any danger that might result from it could break or bend, in the course of time diminished itself, and at present it has left in my mind only that pleasure which it usually retains for those who do not venture too far out on its dark seas; and thus where there once used to be a source of suffering, there now remains a sense of delight, for every torment has been removed.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 26.1 (Marc Bloch)

Bloch, March
Feudal Society Volume 2 - Social Classes and Political Organization

I wish I could say I remember more about this two-volume work. I am pretty sure I bought both volumes on line. I don't have any particular memories to share, other than an image of myself lying next to Lori in bed, the two of us reading quietly before falling to sleep.

From the final section:

But a social system, which is simply a phase of a continuous evolution of human groups possessed of memory, cannot perish outright or at a single stroke...the originality of the...[feudal] system consisted in the emphasis it placed on the idea of an agreement capable of binding the rulers; and in this way, oppressive as it may have been to the poor, it has in truth bequeathed our Western civilization something with which we still desire to live.

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 26 (Marc Bloch)

Bloch, Marc
Feudal Society Volume 1 - The Growth of Ties of Dependence

A few winters ago I found myself reading a lot about medieval Europe -- general histories, histories of art, etc. Along the way I discovered this two-volume work by the French historian Marc Bloch. Bloch is one of the founders of the Annales School of history, which, according to Wikipedia, "is a style of historiography developed by French historians in the 20th century. It is named after its French-language scholarly journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, which remains the main source, along with many books and monographs. The school has been highly influential in setting the agenda for historiography in France and numerous other countries, especially regarding use of social scientific methods into history, emphasis on social rather than political or diplomatic themes, and for being fairly acceptant of marxist historiography."

It's a pretty interesting read if you are interested in the way social classes form over long periods of time. Here's from the introduction:

But the historian is in no sense a free man. Of the past he knows only so much as the past is willing to yield up to him. What is more, where the subject he is attempting to cover is too vast to allow him to examine personally all the sources, he is conscious of being constantly frustrated in his inquiry by the limitations of research. No survey made here of those paper wars in which scholars have sometimes engaged. History, not historians, is my concern. But whatever may be the reasons for them I resolved never to conceal the gaps and uncertainties in our knowledge. In this I felt I should run the risk of discouraging the reader. On the contrary, to impose an artificial rigidity on a branch of knowledge which is essentially one of movement -- that would be the way to engender boredom and indifference. One of the men who have gone furthest in the understanding of Medieval societies, the great English jurist Maitland, said that a historical work should make its readers hungry -- hungry to learn, that is, and above all to inquire. It this book does that, I shall be well content.

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 25.1 (William Blake)

Selected Poetry
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Blake, William
Selected Poetry

If I seemed to be giving short shrift to Blake in the previous entry, I apologize. That particular edition of his poems is the kind of edition that makes people (like me) hate reading poetry. There's so much scholarly interference -- like inserting a note every five lines indicating that in the original there was an illustration [here]. Like we didn't know that. Like your stupid note is going to call to mind the image of Urizen in chains. Fat chance, pedant!


When poetry feels like homework, it is dead. Which is why I love this light little selection of Blake's poetry from Penguin. I bought it for almost nothing at the discount book store in the Niagara Falls Outlet Mall. In addition to selling Library of America hardcovers for nine dollars, they also sell Penguin Classics paperbacks for somewhere between three and seven dollars. I usually leave with a bagful. I can't help myself.

I bought this book a couple of years ago because I love to read and re-read the 'Songs of Innocence and Experience,' but I found that the activity of trying to do so in a three inch thick tome was, to say the least, unfulfilling. I can carry this one around with me and read it in comfort pretty much wherever I like. And I do like.

Around the time I bought this book, I had developed a peculiar, yet pleasurable habit* of coming home on my lunch break to read poems by the romantics. I even started memorizing them. At one point I could recite three or four of Keats Odes, Coleridge's "Kublai Khan," and most of the "Songs of Innocence and Experience." I even memorized all of "Tintern Abbey." Keats and Blake were my favorite to recite. Their rhythms are so complex and unpredictable that it's a thrill to read them every time.

Blake's visionary work is a little above my head, so I can only claim having read the longer poems in school. I suppose I love the Songs of I & E for their compactness, as well as for their ability to create amazingly rich rhythmic structures that accomplish so much in such little space. "The Sick Rose" is one of my all time faves for just this reason.

The Sick Rose

O Rose, thou art sick;
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life de

*Sadly, the invisible worm that flies in the night found out my lunchtime habit, and broke it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 25 (William Blake)

Blake, William
The Complete Poetry and Prose 

I bought this probably fifteen years ago at The Strand in NYC. It makes me sad to think that enough time has passed in my own life and in the parallel life of this book that its pages have already begun to yellow. Beginning at the outer edge of each, at just that point where it rubs up against the outside world, the yellowing works its way inward, forming a kind of aura around the words, which will themselves succumb to this ineluctable discoloration. Eventually the edges will crack and the pages will start to crumble and the whole thing will biodegrade and then The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake will be no more. And this will no doubt occur long after I myself have succumbed to the same process.

Thanks a lot, William Blake.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 24 (Paul Blackburn)

Blackburn, Paul
The Selected Poems of Paul Blackburn

I have a confession to make: although l watch a movie almost every day, I have never seen "Gone With The Wind." I alternately feel guilt and pride over not having seen it. Mostly, though, I feel a nagging sense of incompletion. This same feeling lead me to the purchase of The Selected Poems of Paul Blackburn at some point in the last two years. I think I remember buying it at Talking Leeaves, but I may have bought it online. Sadly, I still have that nag -- I have read a few of the poems, but haven't spent much serious time with his work. I love this first poem in the book, which I guess is very early work. It is to my ear an amazing modern revision of "Ode to a NIghtingale":


This bird speaks to me from the night,
From chilled autumn dark;
There is plaint in the song he makes
In his midnight field.
He remembers a sun-shaft smile
And soft air,
As I remember in my heart and
with my flesh
A smile that made the sundrench
Seem less bright,

Made my soul more lucid than
Any sunlimmed world.
And on my back, awake in a
Single bed,
This room without light, hearing
A bird speak
My flesh to me, I, groping
For the light switch,
Must climb out, struggle into
A robe, making
Two late singers mourning
A lost time.

*This poem also reminds me (a little) of Creeley's "The Whip."

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 23 (The Bhagavad Gita)

The Bhagavad Gita
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Bhagavad Gita, The

I think I remember buying this in college in the hopes of staving off atheism. It didn't work, but here are the final lines:

Sanjaya (isn't that the name of that guy on American Idol?):

Thus I heard these words of glory between Arjuna and the God of all, and they fill my soul with awe and wonder.

By the grace of the poet Vyasa I heard these words of secret silence. I heard of the mystery of Yoga, taught by Krishna the Master himself.,

I remember, O King, I remember the words of the holy wonder between Krishna and Arjuna, and again and again my soul feels joy.

And I remember, I even remember that vision f glory of the god of all, and again and again joy fills my soul.

Wherever is Krishna, the End of Yoga, where is Arjuna who masters the bow, there is beauty and victory and joy and all righteousness. This is my faith.

(There's a hint of Joe Brainard, in there, no?)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 22 (Elizabeth Bishop)

Bishop, Elizabeth
The Complete Poems 1927-1979

I have almost no recollection of acquiring this book, though I am certain I purchased it some time in the last five years. I read a poem of EB's that I liked and decided to buy this book. I don't think I've ever read it through, though I do like some of her poems. A couple of weeks ago Lori and I watched a surprisingly good "chick flick" called "In Her Shoes," directed by Curtis Hanson (the Hal Ashby of our time), starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette.

Diaz plays a beautiful blonde (what else could she play?) who happens also to be dyslexic. In one part of the film she takes a job at a nursing home in Florida, where she befriends an old English professor who is both blind and dying. He asks her to read to him, but she refuses, ashamed that she is not a good reader. He persists and after a few denials he asks if she's dyslexic, to which she replies in the affirmative. He then insists that she read to him and she finally relents.

He asks her to read a poem by Elizabeth Bishop ("One Art") and patiently walks her through the reading of it, then asks her a series of questions about the meaning to help show her that she is more intelligent than she thinks. It's actually a very affecting moment, as is a later one where she reads a poem by ee cummings aloud before an audience.

Here's a randomly chosen poem from this volume:


The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she's a daytime sleeper.

By the Universe deserted,
she'd tell it to go to hell,
and she'd find a body of water
or a mirror, on which to dwell.
So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 21 (Gregg Biglieri)

Biglieri, Gregg
Sleepy With Democracy

I believe I was given my copy of this book, but I may have purchased it. Kye Schlesinger published it on Cuneiform Press a few years ago, and as ever with Kyle it is a beautifully constructed book.

The clearest memory it brings to mind is of Gregg doing a reading from it at Big Orbit Gallery in Buffalo. He made a soundtrack that was basically a collage of all kinds of shoe-gazing and ambient music to accompany his reading of these dense, polyphonic, pun-happy poems.

I think that was around the time that Gregg and I were also driving an hour to Rochester each week to take in a retrospective of Japanese director Mikio Naruse's films. We went on five consecutive Thursdays and got to see: "Repast," "Floating Clouds," "When A Woman Ascends the Stairs," "Wife" and "Late Chrysanthemums." Only one of his films is currently available on DVD over here, which is a real shame. Last year we were at it again, going several Wednesdays in a row to see the films of Portuguese Director Pedro Costa, none of which are available on DVD. Also a shame.


Sub species aeternitatis
U-turn and see me
Are we some subspecies
Of eternity in aspic

A skeptic bishop inspects his
Microscope what do you
Expect specie speaks Latin
Money talks English real good

Opacity sounds more
Transparent than the city
A suffix is opaque
What we comb through
Still combines

I spy
Spiral eyes
Foreign is
My sovereign
Other my all
Out of another
Author Thor
To Thoth a second
Thought a single
Another's aurora
"Better than aviators"
Gaps the blue
And your trophy is

Is there a lighter
Fluid to fire
Green as garden
Rain in eyes

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 20 (Ambrose Bierce)

Bierce, Ambrose
The Devil's Dictionary

I have great memories about the day I purchased this book. Thanks to my friend Paul, who I called to verify a few things, I can pinpoint the exact date that I purchased it: June 11, 1997.

Baseball fans will recall that the previous October the New York Yankees had won the World Series for the first time since 1978. I had been a baseball fan as a kid, but had more or less lost interest in sports after I got to college because I was too busy reading books to care all that much. When the Yankees were in the series in 1996, I did not pay much attention at first. But as the series progressed I kept finding myself at parties or at bars filled with people glued to the TV. After about 3 games, I too was glued.

It wasn't long after that that my father died. When I was a kid we used to bet a dollar on the World Series each year. The most intense years were the 1977, '78 and '81 World Series, all of which were between the Dodgers and the Yankees. My father was from Brooklyn and the Dodger name was never mentioned in our house because they had moved to Los Angeles. In each of these series, I bet on the (L.A.) Dodgers and he held his nose and bet on the Yankees.He won two out of three of our bets. After he died, becoming a baseball fan felt like a means to reconnect with that. Being that I lived in New York, it was only natural that I became a Yankees fan. (Who likes the Mets, anyway?)

So, June 11, 1997, the Yankees played the White Sox. Kenny Rogers pitched for the Yankees and Doug Drabek pitched for the White Sox. My friend Paul had tickets and we decided to meet at the game. The ride from 14th St. to 161st St. takes about 30 minutes, so I decided to stop at a bookstore to buy something to read on the way to the game. I think I bought this at 7th street books. The game itself was pretty exciting. Kenny Rogers got gave up five runs and got taken out of the game, but the Yankees eventually came back to win 7-5. 

(Here's the box score from Basebell Reference, in case you are interested).

This was the first live sporting event of any kind that I had attended in at least 5 years, probably longer. I was not prepared for the sensory assault from the sound system and the jumbo-tron between innings. They kept playing this weird techno-bluegrass number called Cotton-Eyed Joe at about 125 decibels. On the jumbo-tron played a video of all these people in the stands (I can't recall if it was live or recorded) who seemed to think this was about the greatest thing they had ever heard. They were all linking arms and dancing in the aisles and singing along with Cotton-Eyed Joe, himself portrayed by some crazed looking guy in a Huck Finn straw hat.

In front of us (we sat well down the first base line in the right field, about ten rows in) sat a very fat man wearing a black concert t-shirt for some heavy metal band. I couldn't see the front, but the back, in huge letters, said:


In between innings I read entries from The Devil's Dictionary aloud to Paul, who seemed equal parts amused to be paying attention to something other than Cotton-Eyed Joe between innings and annoyed that someone could have the gaul to read a book during a baseball game. 

That day began what has become a decade long obsession with the Yankees. When I moved to Buffalo, my roommate ordered and paid for cable TV, despite my objections. I hadn't used a television for anything but movie rentals for years. I soon discovered that cable TV included MSG and Yankees baseball and proceeded to watch just about every game in the 1998-1999 seasons. Kind of sad. For what it's worth, I watched both David Wells' and David Cone's perfect games live, which was pretty thrilling.

Here are a couple of entries from The Devil's Dictionary. Ambrose Bierce was a bitter, bitterly funny man:

Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.

Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

Kiss, n. A word invented by poets as a rhyme for 'bliss.'

Koran, n. A book which the Mahometans foolishly believe to have been written by divine inspiration, but which Christians know to be wicked imposture, contradictory to the Holy Scriptures.


Tyrone Williams

Here's a link to a brief article I wrote on Tyrone Williams promoting his reading in Buffalo tomorrow.  Make sure to come!  Rust Belt Books, 202 Allen St., 8 PM.

Ben Friedlander's Robert Creeley

We're a ways off from Creeley on the shelves, but you should check out this amazing compilation of sound files Ben is creating as a companion to Creeley's new Selected Poems, which he edited.  This links to the table of contents, which links to sound files of Creeley reading the poems at PennSound.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 19 (Joel Bettridge)

That Abrupt Here
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Bettridge, Joel
That Abrupt Here

According to the inscription, this book was given to me by the author, a poetics program classmate, on October 1, 2007, the day after I read at the Spare Room series in Portland with Kathleen Frasier. Those precious few who have been reading this blog since then will recall that when Human Scale came out in 2007. Lori and I drove 9500 miles back and forth across America visiting friends, doing readings, checking out this spectacularly beautiful country. If you go back to the beginning, you can read all about it. You can also see some photos on my Flickr page (some of which include Joel) from our stop in Portland, which we now refer to as Buffalo West b/c so many of my friends from graduate school now live there.

One strong memory of Joel this book conjures up is from my first year in Buffalo (1997). Several of us were out one night at a bar called the Rendezvous when the discussion turned to questions of religious belief.  It wasn't so much a discussion about belief or non-belief, but more about whether or not it was right for a believer to try to impose their beliefs on other people.  I think I took the position that it was not right for them to try to impose their beliefs on others, to which Joel replied: "You are wrong.  If you believe yourself to be correct, then it follows that those whose beliefs differ from your own must be incorrect.  Therefore, you must try to correct them. Trust me, I have read all the philosophers and they all agree with me."

Anyhow, there's a lot of religious and political and sexual thinking going on in these poems, which I find compelling, especially the manner in which the sacred and the profane are at constant odds with one another, like two kids fighting on a playground:

For All Appearance

Impressed into affection
after all
the kind of talk we
come to expect to hear from
elected officials and

for example
To make palatable

my choices of
formal organization
a problem of 
your neck line and what it 
suggests of what I am sure

are any      number of

personal qualities
The dilemma of using

for bedding   As if
I could repent of
my wish for me need of
Indecorous     a one type of
allusion standing

in for another
something like
to cite an instance
Bets placed on

indiscernible parts of speech

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 18.9 (Charles Bernstein)

Bernstein, Charles
The Difficulties: The Charles Bernstein Issue

This probably rightly belongs in the magazine section, but I like it better among the books of its subject. I bought it last year at Mercer St. Books in New York. Lovely cover photo of CB in flannel shirt and tennis shoes with the laces untied, one leg crossed over the other, staring straight into the camera. 

Contains a long interview of CB with Tom Beckett, editor of the mag, as well as contributions about his work from James Sherry, Nick Piombino, Peter Seaton, Jackson Mac Low, Alan Davies, Diane Ward, Michael Gottlieb, Ronald Johnson, John Perlman, Robert Creeley, Robert Grenier, Ralph La Charity, Craig Watson, Bob Perelman, Rafael Lorenzo, Barrett Watten, & Ron Silliman.

Well, I have to get to work, so we'll make this a short one. This is the last book in the Bernstein section of my library. I feel kind of sad moving on to the next author. I have really enjoyed this part of the shelf. Hopefully I'll be back again some day. Meantime...


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 18.8 (Charles Bernstein)

Girly Man
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Bernstein, Charles
Girly Man

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books in Buffalo. Being that it's inauguration day, I'll tell a story about Charles Bernstein and former President Bush. I re-read about half of this book last night before going to bed. One memory in particular came back to me as I was reading the section titled, "World on Fire."

It was this: Charles read here in Buffalo at Talking Leaves...Books on Elmwood Avenue along with Sean Thomas Dougherty. It was very soon after the Supreme Court decision that handed Bush the presidency had come down. While introducing the poem, "Death Fugue (Echo)," which ends with two lines in German from Celan's devastating poem about the Holocaust, Charles started talking about the election. He told those assembled that he thought the election was the worst thing that had ever happened to our country. And then he got this look in his eyes that I had never seen before -- it was something more than anger -- a kind of fire. "Indignation" is probably the word I am looking for. He looked out at the audience and said something like, "We're all going to burn." I felt a chill run through me and through the audience as well. It was one of the more intense moments I have ever experienced at a poetry reading. 

And then he read the poem:

Death Fugue (Echo)

After Stefan George

In wind's web
Was my fate
In trauma's eye
In only a smile
As you gave
At moist midnight
When your glance ignited.
Now mays drone on:
Now I grieve only
For your eyes and hair
All day
In always longing,
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulam

Monday, January 19, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 18.7 (Charles Bernstein)

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Bernstein, Charles

So far, Charles is the winner of the "most titles on my shelves" prize. He won't be by the end of our little journey, but he will definitely be the reigning champ until we hit Cre--.

Though I had over the years heard him read pretty much the entire libretto of Shadowtime, I did not purchase it until about a year ago. I did so with store credit at Rust Belt Books here in Buffalo. Shadowtime has always struck me as an intensely personal work, one of the most personal in the Bernstein oeuvre.

The figure of Walter Benjamin and his premature death (literally) against the backdrop of the Holocaust and the Second World War give the otherwise detached and satirical and philosophical and nonsensical tone of the dialogue a poignance it might not otherwise have, which makes this work as much a meditation on death and mourning (and a profound one at that) as a "thought-opera." Indeed, the ephemerality of thought serves throughout as a kind of double for the ephemerality of life.

For instance, the Young Walter Benjamin, in conversation with Dora Kellner says:

The tears that fill your eyes
deprive them of the physical world.
For what transpires now
has never before been
and is already gone
as you reflect on it.

Or later, in the amazing conversation between Benjamin and Gershom Scholem:


But how can language ever fulfill itself
as mourning?


It is not the exterior expression
but the inner process.


Then mourning is a kind of listening
Where the dead sing to us
And even the living tell their stories

Or this, from the final scenes of the opera:

Just as I
no sooner than
I had seen you
for the first time
journeyed back
with you
from where I came
and the faces I saw
had disappeared
unable to trace
what I had known
too long
just as you
journeyed back
with me
no sooner than
we met
where you fell
for the first time
hardly to face
the facts I saw
what I had known
always disappearing
and the places
you saw
unable to trace
what's known
then gone
just as I
journeyed back
with you
no sooner than
I held you
from where I came
for the last time
never to face
the facts I saw
what I had
now whispers
just as you
no sooner than
you touched me
the first time
journeyed back
with me
to where
I am.

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 18.6 (Charles Bernstein)

Bernstein, Charles
Republics of Reality: Poems 1975-1995

Purchased in Buffalo, most likely at Talking Leaves...Books. The cover image, To The Lighthouse II, by Susan Bee, hung in Charles' office/seminar room the entire time I was in graduate school. Also on the wall were all the posters for the Wednesdays at 4 Plus readings series that Charles curated. The posters were always all text, no images, with a single color ink that changed with each season. Usually they were printed on bright white paper, though sometimes on off-white as well. I arrived about half-way through CB's tenure in the poetics program, so there were quite a few in the wall by the time I got there, and quite a few more by the time I left.

Most of the rear walls, the "office" part of the room, were covered by bookshelves filled with, you guessed it, BOOKS! I think Charles stored all the books he couldn't fit in his apartment in NY in his office in Buffalo, so there were tons of them.

In the center of the room, in front of the desk, there was a loveseat and a couple of chairs, a kind of lounge (maybe there were two facing love seats? I think they were light blue and were made of blocky, dorm-furniture wood). I often sat there instead of at the seminar table during lectures by visiting poets.

I am trying to remember some of the other items on the walls. I remember their was a Creeley poster, with a poem and a picture of Creeley from the 60's. I think there was an Oppen poster or a a poster for an Oppen conference. One wall was all windows that looked out on the music library, the center for the arts, and the large pond adorned with a post-modern-neo-classical sculpture, whose maker I don't recall. There were usually books piled near the windows. At one time there was a stack of copies of Common Sense by Ted Greenwald. Charles often had extra copies of books from friends or presses or whatever that he would give away as we came into class. In between windows, in the center of the wall there was a little table that had a coffee maker (maybe it was a little fridge with a coffee maker on top?)

There was a poster about a Canadian poetry festival that had a hockey mask with the Canadian flag emblazoned across it. I think there was also a broadside of a short poem by Charles on the wall somewhere. In the front of the room were a couple of seminar tables, around which the classes would convene to discuss what we were reading or to listen to the many visiting poets that came through town, and whose visits made the experience of the poetics program uniquely what it was.

During one class that I recall, students were making their various presentations, one of which was a live video presentation by Anya Lewin. She brought a video camera with her and had it hooked directly into a television set behind Charles. I don't remember her presentation, but I do remember that at one point, while Charles was talking, she turned on the camera and aimed it under the table at his leg, which was always bouncing around maniacally when he spoke. We sat there for several minutes trying to listen to Charles speak while the image of his fidgety leg was projected on the screen behind him.

Here's an early poem of Charles that I have always liked, reprinted in ROR from the chapbook, Senses of Responsibility:

As If The Trees By Their Very Roots Had Hold Of Us

Strange to remember a visit, really not so
Long ago, which now seems, finally, past. Always, it's a
Kind of obvious thing I guess, amazed by that
Cycle: that first you anticipate a thing & it seems
Far off, the distance has a weight you can feel
Hanging on you, & then it's there -- that
Point -- whatever -- which, now, while
It's happening seems to be constantly slipping away,
"Like the sand through your fingers in an old movie," until
You can only look back on it, & yet you're still there, staring
At your thoughts in the window of the fire you find yourself before.
We've gone over this a thousand times: & here again, combing that
Same section of beach or inseam for that -- I'm no
Longer sure when or exactly where -- "& yet" the peering,
Unrewarding as it is, in terms of tangible results,
Seems so necessary.

Hope, which is, after all, no more than a splint of thought
Projected outward, "looking to catch" somewhere --
What can I say here -- that the ease or
Difficulty of such memories doesn't preclude
"That harsher necessity" of going on always in
A new place, under different circumstances:
& yet we don't seem to have changed, it's
As if the years that have gone by are
All a matter of record, "but if the real
Facts were known" we were still reeling from
What seems to have just happened, but which,
"By the accountant's keeping" occurred years
Ago. Years ago. It hardly seems possible,
So little, really, has happened.

We shore ourselves hour by hour
In anticipation that soon there will be
Nothing to do. "Pack a sandwich
& let's eat later." And of course
The anticipation is quite appropriate, accounting,
For the most part, for whatever activity
We do manage. Eternally buzzing over the time,
Unable to live in it....

"Maybe if we go upaways we can get a better
View." But, of course, in that sense, views don't
Improve. "In the present moment" (If we could only see
It, which is to say, to begin with, stop looking with
Such anticipation) what is enfolding before us puts to
Rest any necessity for "progression."

So, more of these tracings, as if by some magic
Of the phonetic properties of these squiggles.... Or
Does that only mystify the "power" of "presence" which
Is, as well, a sort of postponement.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 18.5 (Charles Bernstein)

Bernstein, Charles
My Way: Speeches and Poems

When scholars get around to separating the whole of Charles Bernstein's literary career into discrete periods, the Buffalo years will most certainly be one of them.  But within Bernstein's "Buffalo Period," if I may, they will also note that the change that distinguishes this period from earlier ones has less to do with his time teaching in the Queen City than with his having taking up a position within the academy.

The original publication dates of the essays, speeches, interviews and poems in this collection fit neatly into CB's first ten years teaching at SUNY Buffalo, and it is tempting, nay, irresistible, to read them in this way. So let us proceed. My Way, published in 1999 (when I purchased it at Talking Leaves in Buffalo), does not at first glance differ greatly in form from A Poetics or Content's Dream, his two earlier collections of essays.  All three expand traditional conceptions of what is called poetry, what is called poetics, what are called essays, what is called thinking. They do this by explicitly rejecting the formal markers that set these genres off as distinct from one another.  

What I think marks My Way as distinct from the earlier works is that where they concern themselves with power, ideology, and institutional authority as manifest in the linguistic practices within late capitalism in general, many of the essays in My Way apply this critique to the power structures of the academy in particular. The longest essays in the book, "Revenge of the Poet-Critic, or The Parts Are Greater Than the Sum of the Whole," "What's Art Got To Do With It: The Status of the Subject of the Humanities in the Age of Cultural Studies," "Frame Lock," and "Poetics of the Americas," in addition to sometimes making use of the academically ubiquitous title-colon-subtitle format, all in one way or another address power, ideology and authority as manifest in the linguistic practices of the academy.

At the same time, many of the poems in this book reveal a new willingness to address a "public" by means of "speech" or speeches articulated by a more or less transparent speaker in more or less transparent language.  The "foregrounding of the materiality of the signifier" takes a something of a back seat to strategic speech acts designed to reveal hidden and not-so-hidden institutional assumptions that the speaker (or listener) of the poems might harbor. This kind of poetry becomes much more prominent in Girly Man, published a few years later and written mostly in the wake of 9/11.

Why I am I suddenly writing literary criticism?  I promised myself I wouldn't do that. Maybe I feel guilty for having abandoned the dissertation I was working on with Charles. Nah. I think it has more to do with the fact that as I read through my library I am beginning to feel a need to engage more directly with some the ideas that have come to form my own thinking.  Having read many of his books and studied with him for several years, these ideas no doubt inform a great part of that thinking. This is the second time (Walter Benjamin being the first) my project has been slowed by my desire to re-read the books under consideration.  It probably won't be the last.

Here's very short poem from this book:

Shaker Show

Now that is a chair
I wouldn't want to sit in.


In my entry about running off with the PA system from The Ear Inn, I stated that James Sherry "claimed" that the PA system had been "purchased with Segue money." Charles Bernstein points out on his web log that "it was most definitely Segue's own grant-funded PA system."  I think I phrased it this way with the intent of suggesting that my memory of the event was clouded (or maybe to make for a juicier anecdote?). Anyhow, let me state for the record that we were not taking something that did not in fact belong to Segue and that James Sherry did at no time ask Dan Machlin or myself to commit an act of petty larceny. I reject and renounce all acts of petty larceny, be they in the name of art or in the name of commerce.  Thanks to Charles for the correction, and apologies if I seemed to be casting aspersions on James, which was not my intent.

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 18.4 (Charles Bernstein)

Content's Dream
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Bernstein, Charles
Content's Dream:
Essays 1975-1984

Yet another of Charles' books I read in the Segue archive but didn't own until many years later.  Part of the dynamic I've been describing (reading in the archive then owning much later) owes to the fact that I had almost no money at all when I lived in New York and even less space in which I could store books, so the number of them that I actually bought and kept was pretty small.  When I moved to Buffalo, I got a big, cheap apartment and bought tons of books with student loans.  One of the (few) perks of living in Buffalo is that you get lots of beautiful, cheap living space and all the storage you'll ever need.  Of course, it helps to like snow and hockey, but you can learn to like these things, as I have.

I've always loved the title of this book, Content's Dream.  I presume content's actual dream is 'form.'  At least that is my interpretation, poetic form in all its forms being the content of much of CB's writing. The title raises all kinds of interesting questions about the relationship of content to form. If we imagine content as conscious, formless matter, then is form the subconscious matter of content?  And if it is subconscious, wouldn't the form then itself be the formlessness and content the formed?  Or is form simply the utopian possibility of a future realization of content's revolutionary potential?  Or is content dreaming of something else altogether, and if so, what is the content of that dream?  Does it have anything to do with form?  Is content content with its formlessness?

Playful yet incisive curiosity rules the day in this collection.  It's author's youthful desire to know, experience, and talk about everything under the sun is intoxicating.  Each essay is its own formal experiment. From the chopped-up Dylan lyrics in one essay to the systematically generated text that examines the systematically generated poems of Jackson Mac Low in another, Bernstein's dreaming content is consciously subconscious and very much alive. 

Here's the first paragraph from 'Semblance,' the first essay of CB's ever read (I think in the Norton Postmodern anthology).  When I first read it, I remember being completely baffled, yet also intrigued enough to keep reading until I thought I had a grip on it. I am still delightedly puzzling over the phrase "the in in the which of who where what wells":

Not "death" of the referent -- rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has, how words in combination tone and modify the associations made for each of them, how 'reference' then is not a one-on-one relation to an 'object' but a perceptual dimension that closes in to a pinpoint, nail down (this word), sputters omnitropically (the in in the which of who where what wells), refuses the build up of image track/projection while, pointillistically, fixing a reference at each turn (fills vats ago lodges spire), or, that much rarer case (Peter Inman's Platin and David Melnick's Pcoet two recent examples) of "zaum' (so-called transrational, perversely neologistic)--"ig ok aberflappi"-- in which reference, deprived of its automatic reflex reaction of word/stimulus image/response roams over the range of associations suggested by the word, word shooting off referential vectors like the energy field in a Kirillian photograph.

All of which are ways of releasing the energy inherent in the referential dimension of language, that these dimensions are the material of which the writing is made, define its medium.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 18.3 (Charles Bernstein)

A Poetics
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Bernstein, Charles
A Poetics

I am struggling to recall the point of purchase for this book. I read it while working in the Segue archive, but I didn't purchase it until several years later. On the inside flap there is a price sticker from Half Price Books, which tells me I purchased it for $7.95. But where? No store by that name exists in New York state or in Florida, where my mother lives, which means I must have purchased it online. The plastic on the front cover is starting to peel away from the paper -- come on, Harvard UP, you can do better than that!

A Poetics is a mishmash of essays on everything from poetics to Pac Man to Ezra Pound. "Artifice of Absorption," an 80-page essay cut into lines and stanzas, occupies more than a third of the book.  I think of it as a kind of archetype of CB's sophistical, sophisticated, ideologically-driven examinations of poetry and poetics.  Beginning with an apparent binary: absorption/impermeability, he proceeds to upend, undermine, and deconstruct this opposition by examining the terms not as opposing sides of an argument, but rather as different strategies for producing certain effects in a literary text. 

While he clearly is arguing for an antiabsorptive or impermeable poetics, these terms do not preclude the use of absorptive or permeable strategies in the construction thereof.  More importantly, he is making the implicit or explicit point that the opposite is also the unacknowledged truth of the poetries he is arguing against.  That what is seen by their authors and defenders as natural, i.e., that which is transparent, clear, concise, and absorbing, is making as much use of the impermeable and antiabsorptive as the avant-garde in the production of its own "naturalness," which makes their poems, like it or not, constructions, thus, "unnatural," which binary (natural/unnatural) is itself being torn apart in the process of thinking through these terms.

What one finds throughout Bernstein's essays is a restless and skeptical probing that immediately zeroes in, via a combination of informed ideological critique and biting satirical humor, on the structural weak points of the discourse on poetry.  The effect can be unsettling because it can seem nihilistic, which I suppose is why his detractors can be so virulent in their attacks on him. But I don't see his project as nihilistic; rather, I see it more as an attempt to keep the field of poetic discourse open to possibility.  His inner sophist resists those arguments, movements, poetries, institutions that would limit poetry's possibility by circumscribing the field of discourse in which it is enacted. It is not so much a rejection of everything as a rejection of the exclusionary impulse within that discourse.  

When I first pulled this book off the shelf, I immediately went looking for a passage I remembered from the first essay ("State of the Art") in which he writes an hysterical parody of Bly's Iron John to make his point about certain kinds of false attempts to "represent" cultural diversity in contemporary poetry:

Too often, the works selected to represent cultural diversity are those that accept the model of representation assumed by the dominant culture in the first place. "I see grandpa on a hill/next to the memories I can never recapture" is the base line against which other versions play: "I can see my yiddishe mama on Hester street/next to the pushcarts I can no longer peddle or "I see my grandmother on the hill/next to all the mothers whose lives can never be recaptured" or "I can't touch my Iron Father/who never canoed with me/on the prairies of my masculine epiphany". Works that challenge these models of representation run the risk of becoming more inaudible than ever within main stream culture.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 18.2 (Charles Bernstein)

Dark City
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Bernstein, Charles
Dark City

This book was a well-meaning-yet-poorly-thought-out gift, well meaning in that as a gift it shows that the person knew something of my tastes in contemporary poetry, yet poorly thought out in the sense that as a book of poems to read it is a used book, and not just any used book, but a book used by the giver of the gift in a graduate poetry seminar, and not just any graduate poetry seminar, but a graduate poetry seminar in which it was important to gain some understanding of the meaning of the poems contained in the book, either through reading the poems closely or by taking careful notes in class, and then to articulate this information back to the teacher of the graduate poetry seminar, either through the answering of questions on an exam or through the writing of a seminar paper, which fact seems to have lead, early and often, to the then-owner of the book having made notations in the margins, and not only in the margins, but in between the lines of the poems themselves, sometimes allowing wild profusions of scrawl to take over the page, some of them written in pen, some in pencil, some in small handwriting, some in large, so that even when reading those rare and precious pages that were given free of the giver's (re)marks, the reader finds him or herself overtaken by a harrowing sense of dread, terrified that those random traces of random thoughts generated by the study of the poems at hand, so chaotic, so distracting, so obvious and banal (no offense meant), are about to appear again, perhaps on the next page, perhaps on the one after that, performing in the place of the author, himself a noted disrupter of syntax, the very task for which he is noted, for which pleasure a reader such as myself would, presumably, open the book in the first place, perhaps in the hope of experiencing the titillation of the disrupted syntactical nerve, but surely not to read the fragmentary thoughts of this gauche commentator, who chose to give this reader the gift of disrupted disrupted syntax which, being as it is a contradiction in terms, cancels itself, along with this reader's pleasure in reading the text at hand, out, a fact which leads this reader to a forced confession, which is that though he has read many of the poems in this book individually in other places, such as the Best American Poetry 1992, he has never been able to read them as they are here collected, because the multiplication of disrupted syntaxes caused by the wanton dissemination of marginal and interlinear notes throughout its pages by the giver of this book to him as a well-intentioned-yet-poorly-thought out gift has proved again and again to be an obstacle he has found himself either unwilling or unable to surmount.

For instance, from the first page of the first poem, marginal notes in "":

There appears to be a receiver off the hook. Not that
you care.                                              "interrupted communication
Beside the gloves resided a hat and two
pinky rings, for which no         "nofit"
finger was ever found.                                                

And so on.

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 18.1 (Charles Bernstein)

Bernstein, Charles (ed.)
The Politics of Poetic Form

If one wanted to get really anal about it, this book properly belongs among the anthologies three shelves north, right alongside Close Listening. For some reason I put it with his others, so I'll write about it now and decide its fate later. Like Controlling Interests, it was published by Roof Books and comes with a "plain brown wrapper" of a cover which seems to say: "the revolution will not be stylized" (I almost wrote 'revelation'). 

All of the essays were originally delivered at a conference of the same name at the New School For Social Research. And not in the English Dept., either -- in the school of Public Policy. So much for being unacknowledged legislators!

One thing I like about this collection is that it includes transcripts of the Q & A's that followed the papers, which makes it a little more lively than your average gathering of conference papers. The politics of the contributors (Rothenberg, Silliman, Howe, S., McGann, Waldrop, R., Mackey, Andrews, Brossard, Hunt, Mac Low, & Bernstein) vary quite a bit in specifics, but seem to agree on the central tenet of the conference: that the form of a poem has as much (if not more) political significance as the content.

I am sure I acquired this while working in the Segue archive, but I can't say for sure. I first met Charles as an indirect result of working there. It was in the spring of 1997 and the Segue series that had been running at The Ear Inn was about to move to a new location due to some disagreement with the owner of the bar, or possibly because the owner wanted to run his own series. I can't quite remember.

James Sherry instructed Dan Machlin and myself to go to the reading and to bring the sound system, which he claimed had been purchased with Segue money, back to the office. Andrew Levy was one of the readers that day, but I don't recall the other one. After the reading was over, Dan politely informed the bartender that we were taking the sound system back to Segue. The bartender (rather less politely) informed Dan that the sound system was staying right where it was.

Not knowing what to do about this, we approached Charles to see if he might talk to the bartender or help us in some other way. His eyes lit up and he sprang into action. However, instead of talking to the bartender, he told us to wait for his signal, then sneak the equipment out the front door and make a run for it. He enlisted Andrew Levy to distract the bartender, while Charles himself stood lookout.

Dan and I each took a piece of equipment under an arm and waited for the signal. Andrew stepped up to the bartender and got him talking. Charles waved us toward the door, repeating, "Go, go go!" We walked right past the bartender and out the door, then took off running down Canal Street -- all of this, of course, in broad daylight. We probably ran five blocks before we finally stopped to hail a cab. It wasn't until I moved to Buffalo to study six months later that I was actually formally introduced to Charles.

Here's an excerpt from CB's essay in the book:

Writing conventions play a fundamental role in the legitimation of communicative acts. They determine what is allowed into a particular specific discourse: what is accepted as sensible or appropriate or within the bounds of morality.

Yet dominant conventions are hardly the only conventions with authority and refusing the authority of a particular convention does not, in any sense, put one outside conventionality. Conventions are not identical to social norms or standards, although this distinction is purposely blurred in the legitimation process. Inflexible standardization is the arteriosclerosis of language. The shared counterconventions that may develop -- whether among all constituencies of poets or political groupings or scientists or regional communities -- are often a means of enhancing communication and articulation, in many cases because certain details (palpable material or social facts) are not articulable through prevailing linguistic conventions. Indeed, in its counterconventional investigations, poetry engages public language at its roots, in that it tests the limits of conventionality while forging alternate conventions (which, however, need not seek to replace other conventions in quest of becoming the new standard). Moreover, the contained scale of such poetic engagements allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the formation of public space: polis.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 18 (Charles Bernstein)

Bernstein, Charles
Controlling Interests

This is the first of 10 books by Charles Bernstein on my shelf, so this part (18) might take a few days. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I discovered Charles Bernstein's poetry in the Best American Poetry 1992. 

My introduction to Charles Bernstein the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet came several years later. A friend from college, Stephen Mounkhall, was volunteering once a week to help James Sherry put together an archive at the Segue Foundation. The archive was to consist of all the books Segue had distributed prior to losing their NEA money and going out of business as a distributor of small press poetry books. 

Stephen had to give up the position and offered it to me. He took me down into the basement offices and showed me the archive, which was basically a wall full of avant-garde poetry books from the last 30 years, and enticed me by saying that Dan Machlin managed the place and was there about 10 hours a week and Henry Hills edited his films in there in the evenings, but that the rest of the time it was empty and I could have this basement full of books to myself. It didn't take much convincing.

Of the many books I remember reading down there, the one I recall most clearly is Robert Grenier's "Sentences." The original is a box that unfolds on five sides until it lays flat on the table. All the "sentences" are typed on index cards stacked on the center panel. To close the book, you fold up the sides of the box around the cards and clasp it at the top. It was great fun to flip through the cards and read the sentences aloud.

Roof Books was also housed down there, so I had access to all of the books that they had published up until that time, Controlling Interests being one of them. This was the first book of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry I read cover to cover, and for that reason it is one of my favorites. Some of the poems in here -- "Matters of Policy," "Sentences My Father Used" and "Island Life" -- I would rate as "classics."  At the very least, they would make it into Mike's Anthology of American Poetry Very Important To Him (MAAPVITH), which I may publish someday.

I once tried to write a poem by trying to write the opposite of each sentence in "Matters of Policy."  It's didn't really work. Anyhow, the poems in this book are too long to quote (read "type out") here, but luckily there's a great recording of Charles reading "Matters of Policy" on PennSound:

Matters of Policy (13:37) from reading at Penn on April 11, 2006.